When Indonesian officials withdrew Ajinomoto‘s MSG seasoning from the country in early January, they did so because the product did not meet Islamic dietary laws. The product contained pork and hence was not Halal. The worldwide Muslim population is estimated at between 1.2 billion and 1.3 billion people with very sizeable import markets but many food manufacturers do not provide products for these markets because they do not have an understanding of what is involved in processing food according to the appropriate regulations. Ajinomoto’s experience is one that does not have to be repeated as long as laws are followed properly.

What are the Muslim dietary laws or Halal Laws?

The Muslim Halal dietary laws determine which foods are permitted for Muslims. These laws are found in the Muslim holy book, the Quran and the books of Hadith (the Traditions of Prophet Muhammad). The basic principles of the Islamic laws remain definite and unaltered. However, their interpretation and application may change according to time, place and circumstances. Issues like biotechnology, unconventional sources of ingredients, synthetic materials, and modifications in animal slaughter and meat processing are some of the instances Muslim scholars and Halal food regulators are dealing with in order to make sure that the foods available to Muslim populations are indeed Halal.

Halal Dietary Laws

The Halal dietary laws deal not only with food, but also with cosmetics and personal care products. All foods are considered to be Halal except the following:

  • Pork and pork derivatives
  • Carrion (meat of dead animals)
  • Blood
  • Meat of animals not slaughtered properly
  • Alcohol and intoxicating drugs

The basic principle behind these laws is that all things created by God are permitted, with a few exceptions as mentioned above. The basic reasons for the prohibition of things are due to perceived impurity and harmfulness. Halal laws are the rules of good hygiene and health and have been in effect for more than fourteen centuries. There is a gray area between clearly lawful and clearly unlawful. This is the area of “what is doubtful.” Islam considers it an act of piety for Muslims to avoid doubtful things, in order for them to stay clear of unlawful elements.

Muslims are allowed to eat meat of animals like cattle, and poultry where properly slaughtered. They may also eat food from the sea; namely, fish and seafood. Eggs and dairy products from permitted animals are also allowed.

Proper Slaughtering of Animals

There are special requirements for slaughtering the animal:

  • An animal must be of a Halal species
  • It must be slaughtered by an adult, sane Muslim
  • The name of Allah must be pronounced at the time of slaughter
  • Slaughter must be done by cutting the throat in a manner that induces rapid and complete bleeding, resulting in the quickest death.

Islam places great emphasis on gentle and humane treatment of animals, especially before and during slaughter. Animal-derived food ingredients like emulsifiers and enzymes must be made from animals slaughtered by a Muslim to be Halal. The requirements of proper slaughtering and bleeding are applicable to land animals and birds. Fish and other creatures that live in water need not be ritually slaughtered.

Food processing equipment and Proper sanitation

There are no restrictions about cooking in Islam, as long as the equipment and utensils are free from prohibited materials and ingredients. In the food industry, if the same equipment is used for Halal and non-Halal food products, it must be thoroughly cleaned and sanitized before using it for Halal products. Any visual or analytical method to assure proper sanitation may be employed. However dedicated Halal equipment is preferred to guarantee absolute freedom from unacceptable contaminants. Alcohol may not be used in cooking, formulating or processing Halal food items.

Dealing with Halal certification.

Halal certification of products is becoming widely accepted not only for export but also for products meant for domestic consumption in Muslim majority and minority countries. Halal supervision is taken on by a company in order to expand its market opportunities. It is a business investment – which, like any other investment, should be examined critically. Several Halal certifying agencies are active throughout the world. A company should look for an agency that is widely acceptable to the importing countries as well as Muslim consumers.

Applying for Halal certification of ingredients and food items is very simple. A company after making the selection of an agency makes an application with full disclosure of the ingredients and the processing methods. A Muslim auditor then visits the production facilities, to review the information and recommend modifications, if any. A Halal certificate may be issued for a whole year for ingredients or for each production batch for meat and poultry products. Certification fees may vary from one agency to the other, but generally are a minor fraction of the marketing costs of a product.

How big is the global Halal market.

The size of the worldwide Halal market can be estimated from the size of the Muslim population. Almost one in four persons in the world is a Halal consumer. The Muslim population is estimated to be between 1.2 billion and 1.3 billion people, the majority residing in the Asian countries of Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Malaysia and India, as well as Turkey, Iran, and Nigeria; and vast regions of the Middle East and North Africa.

These areas happen to be net food importing regions, presenting tremendous opportunities for the multinational food corporations. No wonder then that all major companies of the world are involved in Halal food production and marketing. The companies, such as Nestlé, McDonald’s, Kraft Foods and others are leading the way to a global Halal Marketplace. With the global Halal market estimated to be worth US$150bn per year, the extra effort and outlay incurred by certification or special sourcing of ingredients could be amply rewarded.

Muhammad Munir Chaudry is President of the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America (IFANCA). For more information on halal food: www.ifanca.org